The Secret Garden

By Peter Martin, The Sunday Times, 11 October 1998

In the beginning, the Bible describes a fruitful paradise and an ideal man and woman. Now archæologist David Rohl says he has found the real Garden of Eden, in Iran. Peter Martin joined him on a journey through Old Testament country to trace the steps of Adam's descendants back to their original home.

After a 700 mile drive from Ahwaz in the south-west of Iran, we had come out of the northern end of the Zagros Mountains into Azerbaijan province and down onto the Miyandoab Plain, where barren foothills black-dotted with an occasional Bedouin tent had suddenly given way to … there's no other way to say it … an earthly paradise of large, walled gardens right and left, and a profusion of orchards heavy with every kind of fruit. The odd cement factory and petrochemical plant aside, that is. No longer with the road to ourselves, open trucks barrelled along, laden with apples, pears, grapes, melons, maize cobs and bouncing tomatoes. In true-Brit celebration of our arrival, archæologist David Rohl and I exchanged half-daft smiles. With a fine sense of occasion, Siamak Soofi, our interpreter, quoted a line from an ancient Persian song: "Last night I dreamt that the sun and the moon kissed each other."

In its wonderful unlikeliness, the notion suited the moment exactly. For according to very specific geographical references given in the book of Genesis, we had just entered biblical Eden, with the Garden of Eden - Genesis ref: "eastward in Eden" - now all around us and swinging away between two small mountain ranges to our right. Directly ahead, under the far range, lay the sprawling, smog-fuzzed city of Tabriz.

"Paradise lost ?" asked Rohl. But hold on ! The Garden of Eden ? It was important not to get carried away, of course. For one thing, there are walled gardens - Persian gardens, with shade trees and fountains - everywhere in Iran, and nowhere in Genesis does it suggest Adam and Eve took their ease so municipally. Secondly, Tabriz requires to be fed. Hence the intensively worked fruitfulness of the immediate area. It's the city's kitchen garden. But here's a strange thing: in every small town hereabouts, you see at least one big public wall painted with a folk-art depiction of paradise, a mountain of God with water gushing down to dense orchards and lush pastures below. Six thousand years ago, the same icon symbolised the home of Enki, a Sumerian god and the cross-cultural equivalent of Yahweh, God of the Old Testament. At that time, this area was known by two names: Aratta, and the Edin.

But could this really be biblical Eden ? Take chapter two of Genesis, verses 10 to 14. It says there that Eden encompasses the sources of four rivers: the Euphrates and the Hiddekel (Hebrew for the Tigris) - no problem with either of those - plus the Gihon and the Pishon. Scholars since Josephus, the 1st century Jewish historian, have argued as to which two rivers these might be, and you won't find either, as named, on any modern map. According to David Rohl, however, the true identities of the Gihon and Pishon were cracked by one Reginald Walker, a little-known scholar who died 10 years ago. Walker had published his findings in the quaintly titled Still Trowelling , newsletter of the Ancient and Medieval History Book Club, in 1986. "But because the prevailing wisdom even among most biblical scholars is that the Old Testament is little more than myth," said Rohl, "nobody took him seriously."

The Four Rivers of Eden

So let's reconsider Walker's findings. Just north-east of where Rohl and I, with our half daft smiles, had entered the supposed Eden, there's a river called the Aras. But before the Islamic invasion of the 8th century AD, as Walker discovered, the Aras was known as the Gaihun, equivalent of the Hebrew Gihon. Amazingly, as Rohl subsequently found, Victorian dictionaries had referred to the river as the Gihon-Aras.

So what of the fourth river rising in the Eden of Genesis, the Pishon ? Walker's only other local candidate was the Uizun. But again, it seems to have given up its secret fairly easily: Pishon, according to Walker, is simply the Hebrew corruption of Uizon, wherein labial "U" becomes labial "P", "z" becomes "sh", while "o" and "u" are well-accepted linguistic variations. [3]

Then Walker made another discovery on one of his maps: a village called Noqdi. Could this be a trace of the land of Nod, the place of Cain's exile after the murder of Abel ? Noqdi's location certainly fitted the Genesis reference: "in the land of Nod, which is east of Eden."

"Reginald Walker never came to Iran," Rohl explained, "and I do have one or two reservations about his phonetic juggling. But, taken altogether, the possibilities were so astonishing, I had to come and see for myself." After two research trips here, during which he discovered additional Eden locators that fitted Genesis, Rohl is convinced.

The likeliest location of the Garden of Eden is by no means the only jaw-dropper in Rohl's new book, Legend: the Genesis of Civilisation, published on 12th October 1998 (Century, £20). But then that's true to form. Just three years ago, in his first book A Test of Time, then in the TV series Pharaohs and Kings, Rohl stood Egyptology on its ear by claiming that the accepted chronology of ancient Egypt was wrong. Not only did he present good evidence that the pharaonic chronology should be shortened by 300 years, when you apply the shorter chronology it makes for an unprecedented series of fits between Egyptian history and Bible narratives.

In the main, academics weren't kind to Rohl's thesis. Leading Bible scholar Professor Thomas L Thompson insisted that any attempt to write history based on "a direct integration of biblical and extra-biblical sources is not only dubious but wholly ludicrous." Then again, in the wake of Rohl's work, Professor Israel Finkelstein, head of archæology at Tel Aviv University, has already lowered the dates of Israelite archæology by a century.

A Test of Time began in the middle of Genesis and gave a new context to Adam's line from Jacob and Joseph onwards. In Legend, the bold Rohl begins with Adam and Eve and affords their immediate line a historical and archæological place. Not all his evidence is original. Indeed, he draws it from a stunning variety of sources and disciplines. But Rohl's real achievement is the way in which he's pieced the evidence together into a coherent, properly magnificent story, the first of all stories, for the first time. He "finds" Noah in all manner of sources, puts a date on the Flood and identifies where the Ark landed; no, it wasn't Mount Ararat - but more of that later. Thereafter, he traces the migration of Noah's spreading line down through the Zagros Mountains into the plain of Sumer. The Sumerians, whose high period was the 4th and 5th millennia BC, were astonishing: inventors of writing, the wheel, metalwork, and seagoing navigation. Then Rohl demonstrates how these people first made sea-trade contact with north Africa, and later swept into Egypt to become the first pharaohs. Erich von Daniken's dingbat theory of a visit from outer space notwithstanding, Legend's exposition, accompanied by splendid photographs and illustrations, would certainly explain how pharaonic Egypt advanced in culture so quickly.

Ahwaz, start point of our journey to Eden, is a ramshackle Klondike of an oil town south of the Zagros Mountains. On the night before setting off, Rohl was explaining the logic of the route. Bizarrely, or perhaps not, the hotel's only Muzak tape was a medley of Christmas carols: "Silent Night", "The Holly and the Ivy", "While Shepherds Watched …"

Of course, we could have "done Eden", plus garden, by flying to Tabriz and jumping into a taxi, as tourists surely will from now on. Instead, we elected to start our journey hard by the plain of Sumer, south of the Zagros. This, so says the Bible, is the place where the descendants of Adam settled in the period immediately following the great Flood. The so-called "pottery trail" is good evidence of that southerly cultural migration. The oldest pottery, 7th millennium BC, comes from north of the Zagros. The next generation of pottery, from the 6th millennium, turns up halfway down through the Zagros. Roughly 2,000 years later, the first "modern" pottery appeared at Uruk, the second city on earth. By then, it was being mass-produced on fast pottery wheels and was of poorer quality than the 7th-miillenium coil-made originals. Plus ça change.

Starting south of the Zagros, our self-given task was to make the journey of Adam's line in reverse, to travel backwards in time from Sumer through the Zagros Mountains to the first of all places: Eden. Along the way we would encounter some of the godlike characters and ancient beliefs that inform the Old Testament, including the creation myth of Adam and Eve.

With a 7 am start from Ahwaz, we drove through flat, boring oilfield country in the early light, oil flares against the skyline like tall black candles with tremendous flames, as for Old Nick's birthday. As it happened, we were following a route to Eden that was also taken long ago by a royal emissary. "The world's first postman carrying the world's first royal correspondence" is how Rohl had described him. Told on 3,500-year-old clay tablets indented with cuneiform script, the postman's ancient story forms part of the epic of Enmerkar, who was a priest-king of Uruk. Our postman was the poor instrument of a long-distance argument between Enmerkar in Uruk and the (unnamed) lord of Aratta, Aratta being the Sumerian name for Eden. Enmerkar wanted to build a fabulous temple in Uruk for the great Inanna, goddess of love and fertility, and he repeatedly demanded that the lord of Aratta send him large quantities of precious metals and gems for the job.

"The problem wasn't stinginess on the lord of Aratta's part" Rohl explained, "He was terrified of losing Inanna forever to the cities of the plain. The god Enki had already been removed from the mountains to Eridu, the first city on earth. Now he's going to lose Inanna to Uruk." The royal row went on for years, with the emissary trekking back and forth through the Zagros Mountains, three months each way. It would take us three days.

But how does this Sumerian story tie in with that of Adam's line, post-Flood ? The first genealogical "fix" is that Noah's son Shem appears to have been the eponymous dynastic founder of Sumer - as the linguistic journey went: Shem, Shumer, Sumer. By extensive analysis of ancient legends, Rohl has also demonstrated that Enki is the equivalent of Yahweh, God of the Old Testament. On the same reckoning, Inanna is a niece, if a culturally removed one, of the biblical Eve. Yet another "fix" is the double identity of Enmerkar - who, again, turns out to be a well-known Old Testament figure. But let Rohl do the unmasking:

"The 'kar' part of Enmerkar is an add-on epithet meaning 'hunter', and he is also celebrated as the 'builder-king of Uruk'. But Genesis, too, tells of a 'mighty hunter in the eyes of the Lord' - Nimrod, Noah's great-grandson - and credits him as the builder-king of Erech. Same man, same city ?"

For Rohl, the clincher is in the rest of Enmerkar's name.

"Drop the 'mighty hunter' epithet, and you're left with Enmer. Now knock out the vowels - because early Hebrew didn't record vowels - and you've got Nmr. Now knock out Nimrod's vowels, and who have we here ?" Rohl smiled. "We can argue about that stray 'd', if you like."

Our first stop was to see a man-made mountain of God, the ziggurat at Choga Zambil in what was ancient Elam, just north of Sumer. A youngster as ziggurats go, it was built by the Elamite king Untash Gal in the 2nd millennium BC. A grey desert fox trotted across an upper terrace and disappeared. Over black tea and biscuits sweet enough to make your dental fillings sing falsetto, produced by our Jeevesian driver, Hosien Mokhtari, we discussed sacred mountains and why it was that Old Testament figures would ascend one to talk to God. "You can understand their awe of mountains", said Rohl. "Imagine it - life-giving water in the form of a spring actually coming out of the top of a mountain. Now why would it do that unless God willed it ? A high mountain was where God lived. So once these people had migrated from Eden down through the Zagros here to the plain, they had to build their own mountains by way of ensuring continuous contact with God."

The Route to Eden

The Choga Zambil ziggurat is a beauty. With a base about the size of three football pitches, the whole thing is girded with information: entire courses of brick going all the way round it, each brick indented with still-crisp cuneiform script. Soofi, pointing out the perfect brick arches, gave a chauvinistic snort: "Roman arches !" Centrally, there's a recessed stone staircase, and at the top there was once a "dark chamber" to which the priest-king would ascend to commune with a god and, according to iconography of the same period, to couple with a prostitute elect. But what had this ziggurat to do with Adam's line ? The name game again: "Chief god of the Elamites was Enshushinak," Rohl explained. "'En' is Sumerian for 'lord'. 'Sush' is the city of Susa, our next stop. 'Inak' we don't know, but it might just be Enoch, Adam's direct descendant - Enoch, lord of Susa ?"

Back on the route of the ancient postman, the sun was getting hot - as in 47o hot - enough to make the eyeballs begin to dry up on a very short walk. "The English know how to make these long trips, especially old English ladies," said Soofi fondly. "But the Spanish, the Italians ! Cut half an hour off their shopping, and they don't speak to you any more."

Next stop: the ancient city of Susa, 3rd millennium BC, and the tomb of Daniel, he of the lions' den. Susa, now a mound like a small South Down, was excavated by the French Egyptologist Jacques de Morgan, in the 1890s. Justly terrified of local brigands, he built Chateau de Morgan, the castle here - "The most impressive dig house in the world," said Rohl, enviously. Beside Susa's mound is what Muslim's believe to be the tomb of Daniel. "Following the Islamic invasion of 8thcentury Persia," Rohl explained, "many exotic sites were named after Old Testament heroes, who also appear in the Koran." Daniel's tomb or not, it's a place of affecting dignity. A mosque, the ceiling inside is a perfect dome - a single point breaking into eight mirrored facets to form the round, then breaking outwards again in prayer-decorated tiles to form the square base building: Persian geometry. "In finer mosques," Soofi told us, "the dome point breaks into 16 facets, sometimes 32. The point is the infinity of God." Beneath the dome, the tomb is now encased in glass and pillared silver. In the immense quiet, local people kissed the tomb and prayed.

Now, following our emissary's route into the foothills of the Zagros, we entered Old Testament country - mud-brick villages, stony hills ploughed to the near-vertical, little lone stacks of flat rocks denoting ownership of crop fields. Here and there, under a rag sunshade, you'd see a lookout keeping a beady eye, especially for sheep going where they shouldn't. Farmer and shepherd: the ancient enmity - Cain and Abel. In the Zagros the only winter fuel is donkey, sheep and goat droppings, which are whacked into briquettes and piled with conspicuous neatness, like village treasure. The country is also dramatically lumpy with another kind of treasure. You see unexcavated occupation mounds everywhere, the sides occasionally crumbled to reveal strata of past millennia. Some villages are built on mounds, their history stacked beneath.

We often encountered the postman's ancient way, the wide, stony track plain to see. Rohl said, "You have to picture him carrying Inanna's sacred standard, and her awe-inspiring effect: 'For her, they humbly saluted with greetings like mice.' En route to the Edin, he had to pass through seven 'gates', as in 'seven steps to heaven'. And the order of the gates, one to seven, starting at Susa, indicates that Aratta (Eden) had the spiritual status of heaven." Traditionally, "gates" are associated with mountain passes, but here they're something special - spectacular river-cut mountain gorges that have their own geological name, tangs. We got out to look at one, standing on the cliff edge, our eyeballs drying, the serpentine Kerkeh River 200 feet below. "What tangs tell us", said Rohl, "is that the rivers were here before the mountains rose up."

When our postman came through, he crossed his third gate, a wide tang, by walking over Pol-e Dokhtar, the Bridge of the Daughter. Whose daughter, nobody knows. One reconstructed arch and a few stone stanchions remain. But high above the spring waterline, his path runs along the cliff terrace past some Neolithic caves, turns left onto the bridge … down a stone ramp on the far side, and off around another mountain. Once, after being dictated a long message by Enmerkar, the emissary was asked to repeat it back but couldn't remember it all: "My Lord, I am heavy of mouth." At which point Enmerkar is credited with writing the world's first letter, on a clay tablet.

Who was Adam ? Aware that he has no hard evidence, Rohl sees him this way: "Adam is a metaphor for the oldest ancestor in memory, the first historical man, the head of a genealogy, a spiritual and political leader in one. He is, too, I think, the representative of the first settled people, former hunter-gatherers, who, through the Neolithic revolution, learnt to domesticate animals and to plant crops. Religion is a function of settlement, of social organisation, of hierarchy, and of needing a political leader/shaman-priest who is in touch with the gods of nature. Adam, with Eve, probably represents an important marriage between two such settled tribes. They're the founding family of civilisation."

"But you can 'find' these foundling characters in different ancient legends. Eve in Genesis is described as 'the mother of all the living', the same epithet used for Ninhursag, the Sumerian 'Mistress of the Mountain'. It looks, too, from the legends, that Inanna is a daughter of the great mother goddess Ninhursag. But you not only find the same characters in different legends. In the Sumerian creation myth, Enki is cursed by Ninhursag for eating forbidden plants growing in paradise. Enki begins to fade away - his ribs pain him - but Ninhursag relents and creates a goddess called Ninti to cure him. Ninti means 'Lady of the Rib' but it also means 'Lady of Life'. It's a Sumerian pun. But the Genesis author simply took the first meaning. And so the story of Eve's creation from Adam's rib was born."

By 8 am next morning, after a night stop in Kermanshah, we'd come to Behistun, source of the Kerkeh River, which we'd been following with our postman since Susa. There's a mountain here, with a lively spring coming out of its base, and a pool with trees curtseying into it, lilies and bulrushes. The ancients believed not only that the earth was flat but that it floated on a freshwater, underworld ocean. Any place where water came out of the rock was known as an abzu - the sacred entrance to and exit from the abyss. This was once a place of Enki, lord of the underworld ocean. "Of course, there's the motif of miraculous spring water all through the Old Testament too", said Rohl. "When Moses and the Israelites are in the desert dying of thirst, the miracle isn't a rainstorm or an oasis appearing. Moses strikes a rock and out comes water."

Today, the most magnificent feature at Behistun is the rock-face bas-relief of the Persian king Darius I meting out royal justice to a whole line of uppity pretenders to his throne. They certainly knew how to do monuments in 521 BC. The entire history of Darius, whose empire stretched from Turkey to Egypt, is written on the rock face in three different cuneiform scripts. But his story was lost to modern understanding until the 1830s, when an intrepid Englishman, Henry Rawlinson, spent the best part of three years dangling from a rope at the rock face deciphering the scripts. Luckily, I'd seen a photograph of the relief in Iranair's in-flight magazine; but it's invisible now, covered with scaffolding and a crude planked roof, under a preservation order.

Long before Darius, there was some Palæolithic occupation here, and the Parthian Greeks left behind an oddly camp statue of Hercules. But now there's a roaring trunk road too, and the pool is circled by hideous concrete. Offended, Rohl was railing about official vandalism when the otherwise affable Soofi lost his temper, arguing that it was the West's fault for inventing concrete, the motorcar and tourism in the first place. After a long sulk, he brightened. "Sure, the Iran government wants tourism but has no idea how to attract it." Then he laughed: "Our officials, they think they smell kebabs, but it's just a donkey being branded."

Three hours on, we were way up into Kurdistan, at the summit of the highest mountain in what Rohl believes is the biblical land of Havilah, "rich in gold and silver". There are a couple of worked-out gold mines in the area and, a few miles on, the Gold and Silver Rivers. We'd stopped at a caravanserai, a travellers haven-cum-fortress, now in ruins. How crafty of Satan to have taken Jesus to a mountain top to tempt him. You feel omnipotent here, all the world beneath you.

By late afternoon we'd come to the Throne of Solomon - another natural mountain of god and home of Enki, but with a lake in the top and a feisty brook spilling out, source of the Gold River. Five metres down, the lake is freezing, appropriate for an entrance to the abyss. Now it's a place of informal pilgrimage and family recreation, kids splashing about in inner tubes. There's also the ruin of a Zoroastrian "fire temple", possibly 1st millennium BC, fire altar still intact. "Remember the magi ?" said Rohl. "According to some Bible scholars, they were most likely Zoroastrian priests. By way of explaining Jesus' famous 'missing years', one theory has him coming to this region for Zoroastrian tutelage."

As we stood at the lakeside, sun touching the horizon, the air was cut by a singing voice, clear and astonishing. The song, The Head of the Caravan, reckoned to have been written in the 14th century, is played over a Tannoy here every sunset. The voice belongs to Iran's celebrated Mohammad Resa Shajarian. "When he was 14", said Soofi, "he sang like a divine eunuch. He's 60 now, and the lady who looks after him is, well, 17." But the music: not four beats to a bar, as in the Spice Girls or Mozart, but 16 beats, sometimes 32, voice and instruments flying between major and minor with no effort or inhibition, a complexity of music of ancient memory, in which you can hear flamenco, Indian, Chinese, Greek, Gaelic. The lake went bronze, then suddenly black. On the drive to Takab, our night stop, Soofi sang for us until he was hoarse. Tomorrow, Eden.

Next morning, we wound down out of the mountains, through the ancient seventh gate, and onto the Miyandoab Plain, where our emissary, "… like a huge serpent prowling about in the plain, was unopposed". His destination was the one-time city of Aratta, which has never been found. And so we entered the supposed heart of Eden and then, passing between Lake Urmia on our left and Mount Sahand on our right, the garden, orchards aplenty, brash Technicolor-painted mountains of god on this wall then that, Rohl and I smiling and gawping, Soofi relating how the sun kissed the moon, and Tabriz up ahead.

What came next was a shock for Rohl especially. The great city walls of Aratta are described in ancient records as being painted with red ochre. This was Rohl's third visit to Tabriz, but he had never entered it in this quality of high-summer light before. "Look at that," he said. The mountain directly behind the city, like no other we'd come across in the Zagros range, is of the reddest ochre clay. It glowed red. "And Adam ?" Having read the book of Rohl - my other, now battered travelling companion - I needed no prompting: Adam made of clay, Adam meaning "red-earth" man in Hebrew. Every myth must have its raw material.

In Iranian cities, since there are no pubs, clubs or trendy restaurants everyone's idea of a glitzy night out is to go to a hotel lobby. In Tabriz, there's only one half-decent hotel, and it was a madness of people: great assemblies of black-clad women, men shouting and smoking like Turks, kids having pushchair races, playing football. Just 10 generations after Adam, humanity had become similarly unruly and noisy. Which is precisely the reason given in Genesis for Yahweh deciding to wipe out his creation. As Genesis also tells it, none of us would be here at all were it not for one wise and devout man, the chosen survivor, Noah, hero of the Flood.

Thus it was, in the teeming hotel lobby, that Rohl told of Noah: "A multicultural sort of character, Noah has three other ancient identities - the Sumerian 'Ziusudra', Old Babylonian 'Atrahasis', and the Akkadian 'Utnapishtim'. As in the story of Noah, Utnapishtim also sends out a dove and a raven to find dry land."

And the date of the Flood ? In his book, after a truly heroic deployment of evidence - including sliding chronologies and a review of water-laid silt strata, most notably at Ur of the Chaldees - Rohl plots it at about 3,100 BC. But he'd reviewed a good number of ancient flood epics - there are over 150 world-wide - before coming across the flood record of the Meso-American Mayan culture. "The Mayan calendar - they were exceptional record-keepers - fixes the date for their great deluge at 3,113 BC. Strange, that."

Biblical Peoples
The different cultures and dynasties that occupied Old Testament country, according to David Rohl's new chronology
Sumerian 3100 - 2100 BC
Elamite 3000 - 647 BC
Akkadian 2100 - 1920 BC
Old Babylonian 1667 - 1362 BC
Assyrian 1000 - 612 BC
Neo-Babylonian 625 - 539 BC

There is a problem with the popular idea that Noah's ark came to rest on Mount Ararat. "The one which recent Christian explorers have been heading off to," said Rohl, "is Mount Aregats, which was first identified as the Mountain of the Descent around the time of Marco Polo, if only for its impressive size. Marco Polo was a notorious fibber, anyway. But Aregats is way across in eastern Turkey, north of Lake Van." So where might the true site be ? "In Genesis it says the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat, and all the Jewish and early Christian commentaries place it in the Zagros range in the Land of Kardu, the ancient name of Kurdistan. That's south of Lake Van and south-west of Lake Urmia. The Babylonian priest-historian Berossus, 3rd century BC, even tells of people removing pieces of bitumen from a ship and taking them home as talismans. Then there's the Assyrian king Sennacherib. After campaigning in Kurdistan around 700 BC, he worshipped a plank he'd recovered from the ark."

But which mountain is it, David ? "Well, a lot of people seem to have known - Berossus, and the Koran mentions it, so does the 10th century Muslim writer Ibn Haukal. The pilgrim saint Jacob of Nisibis apparently knew too … It's a mountain called Judi Dagh in the Zagros range about 100 kilometres due north of the town of Mosul. When Sennacherib collected his sacred plank, he celebrated his visit by carving several reliefs of himself at the foot of Judi Dagh. We also know that the 5th century Nestorian Christians built several monasteries there, including one on the summit known as the Cloister of the Ark." Which, taken all together, would seem to settle the matter once and for all.

Next day, we set off to tour the supposed garden, heading "east of Eden", as directed by Genesis. Ten miles out of Tabriz, you're in Old Testament country once more, but not the stony-ground sort. There's a spacious, rural luxuriance, good sheep pasture, dark-soiled fields, the mud-brick villages presiding on their history-packed mounds, with orchards and vineyards drawn close about them, and stands of poplar behind. At the roadside, we bought grapes approaching the size of ping-pong balls.

In physical geography, this is a natural garden - a fertile plain some 60 miles wide and 200 long, enclosed between two mountain ranges, which come nearly together at the eastern end. In Genesis, it says the garden is watered by its own unnamed river. But as Rohl confirmed on his first visit, this plain too has its own river winding through it, the Adji Chay. "And just a century ago," he said, "it had been known as the Meidan, which is Persian for 'walled court' or 'enclosed garden'".

Another key reference in Genesis describes the river Gihon as winding "all through the land of Cush". As with the four rivers of Eden, the whereabouts of Cush has been debated for centuries, as Rohl explained. "Josephus associated Cush with the ancient African kingdom of Kush, south of Egypt, making the Gihon the Nile, which prompted others to hazard that the Pishon was the Indus or the Ganges. Spanning three continents, this would have made the original Eden absurdly big."

Noah's Ark

Rohl's candidate as the locator for the land of Cush is Kusheh Dagh, the Mountain of Kush. Sited about 100 miles east along the garden valley, it forms part of the northern wall. As per Genesis, the Gihon River winds clear through the vicinity. The foothills are lumped all around with unexcavated mounds.

Between them, Walker and Rohl appear to have scored another direct hit with the land of Nod, place of Cain's exile "east of Eden". First, in order to get to the village of Noqdi, you do indeed have to leave the garden valley via its eastern exit. Noqdi itself - standard mud-brick, poplars, orchards - sits at the back of a valley next to an occupation mound so big, you want to fall on it with trowels. Two old men we spoke to knew no history of the village beyond their great-great-grandfathers' time. They had heard tell of another town somewhere in the area, Old Noqdi, but they'd not been there.

The teasing bit is that the "i" of Noqdi means "of". A village "of" Noqd therefore implies a larger region for Noqd. At this frustrating point on his last trip, Rohl went to the nearby town of Ardabil, located some officials and, via them, some local maps. What he found convinced him. "The whole area beyond the eastern exit comprises two districts: Upper Noqd and Lower Noqd. Not to labour the point, but if Cain had gone any further east, he'd have ended up in the Caspian Sea."

We headed back into Eden through Cain's exit. About the possibility of regaining paradise, Soofi said, "Oh, heaven's not there any more. The only way to regain it is inside ourselves." But he had a smile coming on. "Once we had wisdom, then we settled for knowledge, now it's mostly information. As the Koran says, 'like donkeys loaded with books'".

On our last day, we drove a little way south of Tabriz to inspect David Rohl's nomination for the original settlement of the Garden of Eden and Adam's own Mountain of God. Mount Sahand has a small lake in the top, the water rising up through a one-time volcanic chimney. A stream trickles from the summit, then flows through the Garden into Lake Urmia.

As you approach Mount Sahand, there's a narrowish, fertile valley dominated by the small mud-brick town of Osku, which sits on its own bulky occupation mound. "What do you think ?" said Rohl. Yes: if you were a tribe of hunter-gatherers who'd come by a few husbandry and farming skills, and you had scouted the whole area for he ideal spot to settle, this would be it. It's as if the plain has lapped up into the valley and left its lush best just here: dark earth and an extraordinary density of olive groves, fruit orchards, walnut and almond trees. It's so comfortable besides: well-watered by the river, in the lee of the mountain, with benign puffy-breasted hills leading down to the valley floor. This would be a place to make home.

A few miles on, near the summit of the mountain, there's a sight to sober any western mind … cave dwellers … a troglodyte village called Kandovan, which means "honeycomb-like", after the rock-hole dwellings. The inhabitants think of this as their mountain. Of Turkish origin, they call it Jam Daghi, Mountain of the Chalice, and hold its cascading river to be sacred, using it for everything they need with due respect. Sole concessions to the present millennium are a village phone line, front doors on the caves, windows wedged in, and a corner shop selling cigarettes and sweets.

Like the Throne of Solomon, the Mountain of the Chalice is a place of pilgrimage and recreation - and of healing. The water is said to be especially good for the kidneys. Coachloads of schoolchildren, girls black-clad and faces covered, come for the educational experience. There are tourists too, but the villagers appear to give no quarter. Mercedes vs. donkey driver in a stony narrow ? Mercedes backs up. Literally holed up above the snow line for three months of every year, Kandovans stow their animals in cave cellars next to or under their living rooms. But they work their fertile mountain hard and it gives back a saleable surplus: corn, fruit, nuts, seeds, herbs and flower medicines.

The mountain has a sort of double summit: twin peaks. Certainly one, the Mountain of the Chalice, was once a home designate of Enki. And the other ? "The 'Bright Mountain of Inanna', I shouldn't wonder," said Rohl. Of course, he's bound to be wrong on a few points, but that hardly matters up against the accumulated evidence of his thesis overall: the decoding and plotting of the four named rivers of Eden; the discovery of the unnamed river that was said to water the garden; the identification of the lands of Havilah and Cush; and the fair certainty that the place of Cain's exile, the land of Nod, is there still. Rohl didn't ask me the big question, but the answer is yea and verily: I do believe I have been to the Garden of Eden.

Garden of Eden

Click here to view a large scale satellite image of the Garden of Eden

References to the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis

The Book of Genesis (Greek: Γένεσις, "birth", "origin") or Bereishit (Hebrew: בְּרֵאשִׁית, "in the beginning") is the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and the first of five books of the Torah, called the Pentateuch in the Christian Old Testament. Named for the Greek word for "origins", Genesis is the "Book of Beginnings" - the beginning of the Bible, and accounts of the beginning of the universe, earth, and its inhabitants starting with humans.

Genesis 2

8: And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

9: And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

10: And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.

11: The name of the first is Pison: that is it which compasseth the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold;

12: And the gold of that land is good: there is bdellium and the onyx stone.

13: And the name of the second river is Gihon: the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia.

14: And the name of the third river is Hiddekel: that is it which goeth toward the east of Assyria. And the fourth river is Euphrates.

15: And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

Genesis 3

23: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

24: So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Genesis 4

16: And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

The four "conclusions"

In Legend: The Genesis of Civilisation the author draws the four following conclusions:

Conclusion One: the four rivers of Genesis 10:14 are the Kezel Uizhun (Hebrew, Pishon), the Gaihun/Aras (Hebrew, Gihon), the Tigris (Hebrew, Hiddekel) and the Euphrates (Hebrew, Perath).

Conclusion Two: the biblical land of Cush was located in Azerbaijan whilst the land of Havilah was located in the Iranian mountain region now known as Anguran.

Conclusion Three: the biblical Garden of Eden is to be identified with the Adji Chay valley (formerly known as the Meidan valley) in north-west Iran at the heart of which is the regional capital of Tabriz.

Conclusion Four: the land of Nod was located in the plain west of the Elburz mountains around the city of Ardabil.

[3] Editor's note: Reginald Arthur Walker (1917 - 1989) in his paper "The Real Land of Eden" published by the Ancient and Medieval History Book Club (No 11, 1986). Walker's conclusion regarding the four great rivers of Genesis, taking them in reverse order, is as follows:

  1. the Perath (Sumerian Buranum) is the river known to the Greeks as the Euphrates
  2. the Hiddekel (Sumerian Idiglat) is the Hebrew name of the River Tigris
  3. the identity of the Gihon is a little more difficult to establish but, as Walker discovered, it is to be identified with the River Araxes
  4. the Pishon is, according to Walker's arguments, the River Uizhun which rises from several springs located near Mount Sahand (an extinct volcano east of Lake Urmis) and the Zagros mountain massif around the Kurdish capital of Sanandaj. It outflows into the Caspian Sea not far from the modern port of Rast. The Uizhun is also known as the Kezel Uzun ('long gold'). There is no obvious connection between the names Pishon and Uizhun but the geographical overview confirms the identification.

David Rohl suggests that the Land of Eden was a vast area referred to in ancient Sumerian texts as the Edin (literally "Plain" or "Steppe"), north of Mesopotamia beyond the Zagros mountains. The Garden of Eden was then located in a long valley 'in the east of Eden', to the north of Sahand volcano, near Tabriz. He cites several geographical similarities and toponyms which he believes match the Biblical description, including the four river headwaters of the Tigris (Hiddekel), Euphrates (Perath), Gaihun-Aras (Gihon) and Uizun (Pishon); the mountain range of Kusheh Dagh (the land of Cush); and Upper and Lower Noqdi (the Land of Nod).

"Legend: The Genesis of Civilisation" (1998) David M. Rohl at pages 71 to 74

Chapter 1

Paradise Found

Let us bring together what we have discovered so far about the mythical land of Eden and its paradisiacal garden.

First of all we can say with some confidence that Eden does exist - it is not a purely mythical place deprived of a real geographical setting. Eden is located in ancient Armenia with its heartland in the Lake Van and Lake Urmia basins. This is also the region the Bible calls Ararat - the Assyrian Urartu. The four rivers which flow from Eden are the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Gaihun-Aras (Gihon) and the Uizhon (Pishon).

The Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden has also been located. It lies at the western end of the Adji Chay valley, near the city of Tabriz. The Garden is 'in the east of Eden' and is protected on its north, east and south sides by the mountain peaks of the Savalan and Sahand ranges. To the west are the treacherous marshlands of the Adji Chay delta stretching out into Lake Urmia. The Adji Chay has an older name - the Meidan - which means 'walled-garden' - this is the river, described in Genesis 2:10, which waters the Garden of Eden.

To the east of the Garden the valley gradually ascends to a mountain pass which is the eastern gateway into Eden. Beyond, in the Ardabil basin, lies the land of Nod - the destination of Cain's exile. Several villages in this area still hold a dim memory of the ancient biblical toponym in their modern names. At the outflow of the pass leading from the south and east into Nod, and therefore beyond to Eden, stands the town of Kheruabad - the 'settlement of the Kheru' - a name which may provide a link to the ferocious winged guardians of the eastern gateway into Eden. The Bible calls them the Kerubim - the Cherubs.

To the north of the valley of the Garden lies the 'Mountain of Kush' (Kisheh Dagh) and, beyond, the biblical land of Cush. Through Cush flows the Gihon river, identified with the mighty Araxes river which was called the Gaihun at the time of the Islamic invasions of Persia.

To the south of the Garden, beyond the Sahand and Bazgush mountain ranges, lies the land of Havilah 'rich in gold'. This is the Iranian province of Anguran stretching from the Talesh mountains in the east to the Miyandoab plain in the west. This mountainous region is watered by numerous fast-flowing streams which cascade down from the volcanic peaks and gather together into the meandering Kezel Uzun river - the biblical Pishon which 'winds all through the land of Havilah'. The district of Anguran is renowned for its mineral wealth just as Havilah was renowned for its gold and semi-precious stones. And one other incredibly rare stone is found here which is going to play a part in our story - lapis lazuli (the 'blue stone' of gods and kings).

We seem to be doing pretty well in our search for the origins of the Genesis story - especially considering that any attempts to locate Eden are doomed to failure in the view of most academics. Walker's topographical discoveries have uncovered the physical geography of the Edenic legends, but is there more to unearth from sources outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition ?

So far we have been concentrating predominantly on Chapter Two of Genesis and the geography of modern western Iran. I think we have probably learnt as much as we can from the biblical record. Now it is time to turn to the extra-biblical sources - in particular the epic literature of the Sumerians, the foremost of ancient world civilisations.

What we find is rather interesting. The Sumerians do refer to a mystical land beyond the mountains - but it is not called Eden. The Sumerian paradise is the kingdom of Aratta, rich in gold, silver, lapis lazuli and building stone. We will learn that it is the place where gods originated, the 'Land of the Living' and the far-off world to which the archetypal Sumerian hero journeys to seek his destiny.

"From Eden to Exile" (2002) David M. Rohl at pages 21 to 29

Chapter One

Adam and the Garden of Eden

Genesis 2:8 to Genesis 4:16

In the beginning - the beginning of memory - there was once a luxuriant land called Eden with a paradisal garden set towards its eastern limits. Eden lay beyond the broad mountain range which separates the Mesopotamian plain from the steppes of central Asia, its heartland located in the area of the two great salt lakes of Van and Urumiya. The lush primeval valleys and plains of eden were hemmed in by tall snowcapped peaks, their slopes covered in a dense canopy of pine (erini) and cedar (survan) forest. Later, the Persians would simply know the place as pairidaeza - Paradise.

Four rivers of Eden

Four of the ancient world's great rivers flowed from Eden. The headwaters of the Hiddekel (Tigris) and Perath (Euphrates) were located in the west, whilst those of the Gihon (Gaihun-Aras), flowing through the land of Havilah, rose in its eastern part.

Eden was the place which gave birth to civilisation - the womb of the great earth-goddess and the mother of the Neolithic Revolution. This was the time when Stone Age Man finally gave up the wandering hunter-gatherer way of life, settled in villages and began to raise crops and domestic animals.

Located in the eastern part of the sparsely populated region of Eden was a long east-west valley, protected by high mountains on three sides. The sun rose at one end and set at the other. To the north stretched the Mountains of Cush beyond which lay the land of the same name, through which flowed the River Gihon. At its eastern end, the range culminated in the rocky volcaniv pinnacle of Mount Savalan, guarding the eastern entrance into Eden. To the south the snow-topped Bazgush ridge separated the valley from the Land of Havilah with its fast flowing streams, rich in gold, which joined to form the meandering River Pishon. At the western end of this southern range rose the mountain massif of Sahand - an icy world of glistening volcanic peaks. The valley was bounded on its west side by salty Lake Urumiya beyond a broad area of inhospitable marshland and salt flats.

It was here in this lush valley 'in the east of Eden' [Genesis 2:8] that Adam and his people settled. The epic story of the Children of Yahweh begins here in this first of all gardens - the Bible's Earthly paradise.

The 'garden' (Hebrew gan) into which the Adamites had arrived was sheltered on three sides - a haven from the worst of the highland climate and a refuge from nomadic bands moving through the surrounding mountains along the major communication routes. Westerly winds brought warm rain from the Mediterranean, creating a micro-climate in the long narrow valley. This extra moisture encouraged dense vegetation growth and an amazing variety of fruit-bearing tress 'enticing to look at and good to eat' [Genesis 2:9]. In deep red soil covering the foothills, orchards of apple, apricot, pistachio and almond grew in abundance. Intermingled with the fruit- and nut-bearing trees, wild vines entwined the natural sloping terraces, heavily laden with bunches of sweet green grapes. The vine was the Tree of Life at the heart of Eden.

Scattered across the valley floor Adam's people found bubbling hot springs which watered meadows carpeted in wild flowers. And through the centre of this idyll flowed a river, the numerous sources of which originated atop the summits of the surrounding peaks. The river of the Garden flowed westwards before disgorging into the swapms of Urumiya. Today this river is called the Adji Chay - the 'bitter waters' - because of the high mineral content washed down from the metal-rich mountains. Its more ancient name was Maidan, meaning 'Royal Garden'.

Here was a place that had everything. Adam and his followers established their roots in this virginal landscape - the legendary Garden of Eden.

East of Eden

The Red Earth Man

Adam was both the ruler and high priest of his community. He was in tune with the voices of nature which spoke to him in vision and trance. Adam knew the power of the plants and the animals.

He was also well aware of the harsh realities of life and its inevitable end. The great MOTHER EARTH regularly took back the bodies of the creatures she had created, leaving only bleached bones as witness to their brief existence. Earth to earth, dust to dust - or, more correctly, clay to clay [Genesis 3:19]. Just as the potter produced vessels on his potter's wheel, so the gods (Hebrew elohim, Sumerian igigi) made Man in their likeness from the clay of Mother Earth on a ptter's wheel.

The gods (elohim) said, 'Let us make Man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish and the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that creep along the ground.' [Genesis 1:26]

They (the gods) summoned the goddess, the midwife of the gods, wise Mami ('mummy' = Ninhursag), and asked: 'You are the womb-goddess, creator of Mankind! Create a mortal, that he may bear the yoke!' … Enki ('Lord of the Earth') made his voice heard and spoke to the great gods: '… Then one god should be slaughtered … NINTU ('Lady of Birth') shall mix clay with his flesh and blood. Then God and Man shall be mixed together in clay'. [Atrahasis Epic 1:4]

Yahweh shaped Man from the clay of the ground and blew the breath of life into his nostrils, and Man became a living being. Yahweh planted a garden in the east of Eden and there he put the man he had fashioned. [Genesis 2:7-8]

Yahweh took the man and settled him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it. [Genesis 2:15]

In the creation mythology of ancient Mesopotamia Man was made in the likeness of the gods by combining the clay of the earth with the blood of a sacrificed god. So it was that Adam received his own traditional name meaning 'red earth' - the red earth or clay taken from the Red Mountain overlooking the Garden. Excavations in Eden have revealed that red ochre was used to paint the walls of the houses, decorate clay figurines and cover the bones of the dead as 'replacement blood' or as a substitute for the flesh stripped from the bones by carrion [1]. Adam knew the earth because he was of the earth.

Mountain of God

To the south of the settlement a narrow, steep-sided valley rose up in the direction of the most prominent mountain at the western end of the Garden.The great snow-covered dome of the mountain towered above the orchards, its summit often shrouded in clouds. One day Adam decided to follow the stream up the valley. The fast-flowing brook, charged with ice-cold waters from the spring thaw, led him higher and higher until he found himself within sight of the montain top. There, immersed in the clouds, the landscape began to take on a supernatural form.

The fruit-bearing trees, heavy with blossom, had dwindled away soon after Adam had begun his climb. He had then crossed a barren moorland which spread out before the mountain. Following a bend in the gorge, made by the fast flowing stream, he was now confronted by an amazing sight. The source of the stream was a shimmering pool, bubbling with hot gases. Enclosing the spring were conical towers of volcanic tephra [2]. The reflection of these huge molars appeared as a gaping jaw in the water, at the centre of which lurked utter darkness. Above this entrance into the underworld the icy dome of the mountain stood sentinel.

Just as with Abraham and Moses, thousands of years later, Adam first came face to face with his god here in this 'high place' above the Garden of Eden. This was a crucial turning point in Man's journey through time; the moment which transformed Adam - the red earth man - into the genealogical fount of Judaeo, Christian and Islamic lineage. It was what distinguished the great ancestor of Yahweh's children from all who had gone before him. Here, and at this moment, the age of the Mother Goddess gave way to the era of the Lord of the Earth - the god recognised throughout the ensuing primeval age as the 'Friend of Man'.

Later tradition (in the form of the books of Ezekiel and Isaiah) would refer to a mysterious 'mountain of God', the 'exalted throne' and the 'mountain of the assembly (or heavenly host)'. By the time of the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah, this holy mountain lay 'far away to the north' of Israel [Isaiah 14:13]. It became synonymous with the place of Man's fall. From these heights humanity (in its manifestation as the Phoenician King of Tyre) fell from grace to suffer mortal existence, forever beyond the protection of the Eartly paradise.

Son of Man, raise a lament for the King of Tyre. Say to him 'The Lord Yahweh says this: "You were in Eden, in the Garden of God … you were upon the holy Mountain of God, where you walked amongst the red hot coals … I have cast you down from the Mountain of God and destroyed you … Of the nations, all who know you are stunned at your fate. You are an object of terror gone forever." [Ezekiel 28:11-19]

The primitive, innocent world came to an end with Adam. The symbolic metaphor of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the incident of the Temptation mark the second crucial turning point in Adam's lifetime when Man began to seek the unknown. That all too human quest for knowledge became the 'mortal sin' which ignited Mortal Man's struggle and suffering in the descendants of primeval Adam. Our story of the Children of Yahweh really begins with that first step beyond the domain of the sacred mountain and its fabulous garden, the descent or 'fall' from heaven and the ceasless wanderings which culminated in bondage on the banks of the River Nile over three and a half thousand years later.

The Mountain of God is still there to this day. You will find it marked on maps of western Iran as the 3,700 metre (10,500 ft) mountain massif of Sahand. The sacred pool - the primeval and original 'abyss' (Sumerian abzu) - has gone, as have the 'red-hot coals'. But, if you climb Sahand today, following in Adam's footsteps, you will come across the ancient troglodyte village of Kandovan, hewn out of the old volcanic towers beside the bubbling spring. Time stands still in this place where humanity first communicated with the god of the Bible.

A Marriage Made in Heaven

Not long after the establishment of their village at the foot of Mount Sahand, the Adamites came into contact with other people settled in the region. To the south, beyond the Mountain of God in Eden, lay the Land of Havilah, 'rich in gold', where the Huwawa tribe lived. The chieftain of that tribe had a daughter - a priestess of the goddess Ninhursag - the 'mistress of the mountain peaks' and the 'mother of all the living' - whom he now offered in marriage to Adam. The union of Adam and Eve (Hebrew Hawwah) produced three sons and several daughters. In the biblical tradition Eve was given the epithet 'mother of all the living' because of her role as the great female ancetsor of the Hebrew line. But there was also a ritual significance to this epithet. Adam, chieftain of the Eden clan, and Eve, priestess of the birth-goddess of Havilah, performed the annual union of the Sacred Marriage in which Eve took on the persona of the great Mother Goddess. Three thousand years later, Adam's successor rulers would still be practising this most ancient sexual rite in the 'dark chambers' atop the great ziggurats of Mesopotamia so as to create an heir to the sacred throne and ensure the fertility of the land at the birth of each year.

The first-born of Eve's sons was CAIN, followed by ABEL his younger brother by three years. The two boys grew up together, learning not only to domesticate wild sheep, goats and cattle, but also to cultivate the land. In adulthood, Cain became a farmer whilst Abel took to shepherding in the hills. Their contrasting and conflicting ways of life - the tilling of soil versus pastoralism - would eventually be responsible for a great tragedy, shattering the unity of the village and leading to the exile of one group from Eden. This conflict between sedentary farming and nomadic pastoralism still simmers in the Iranian highlands today - the eternal curse of Cain and Abel.


[1] Primitive man most likely daubed his skin with ochre to ward off insects. In the valley of the Garden the swarms of mosquitoes which bred in the marshes of the great lake were a constant irritant, but the tribe soon learnt that red ochre was an effective insect repellant.

[2] Editor's note: 'Tephra' (derived from the Greek word for "ash") is fragmental material produced by a volcanic eruption regardless of composition, fragment size or emplacement mechanism.


  1. "The Real Land of Eden", Reginald A. Walker, (27 pages) published in "Still Trowelling", Ancient and Medieval History Book Club (No. 11, 1986)
  2. "The evidence for a recent dating for Adam about 14,000 to 15,000 years before present", Biblical Research & Archæology
  3. "Legend: The Genesis of Civilisation", David M. Rohl (1998) Chapter 1 at pages 43 to 74
  4. "From Eden to Exile", David M. Rohl (2002) Chapter 1 at pages 21 to 29

Recent Research

"Humans 100,000 years older than thought"

By Sarah Knapton, Science Editor, The Daily Telegraph, Thursday 8th June 2017

Human evolution began at least 100,000 years earlier than previously thought, scientists have found, debunking the theory that the Rift Valley of Ethiopia was the "cradle of mankind".

The world's oldest Homo sapiens fossils - which may represent the first known human family - have been excavated in a barite mine at Jebel Irhoud, 60 miles west of Marrakesh, dating between 300,000 and 350,000 years old.

Until now, experts believed that all humans descended from a population in east Africa. The earliest examples of our species were found in the Sixties by Richard Leakey in south-west Ethiopia, dating from 195,000 years ago.

But the new fossils - of three young adults, one adolescent and a child of around eight - prove that early modern humans were established at Jebel Irhoud at least 300,000 years ago.

"There is this notion that somewhere in east Africa there is a Garden of Eden where our species first developed," said Prof Jean-Jacques Hublin, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig.

"Very early in the process we realised the site was much older than anyone could imagine and we came to the conclusion that the layer richest in hominids around the site was much older than anything else in Africa. This material represents the very root of our species. So there is no Garden of Eden in Africa. Or, if there is, it is the whole of Africa."

Prof Jean-Jacques Hublin pointing to the crushed human skull whose orbits are visible just beyond his finger tip

Fossil remains were first discovered by miners working at the Jebel Irhoud in the 1960s, who while digging a new gallery, hit a pocket of reddish sediment which collapsed, revealing stone artefacts, bone and a skull. But initial dating suggested they were only 40,000 years old. However experts were puzzled by the features of the bones which had some modern human traits, but also more ancient brain cavities. So in 2004, experts at the Max Plank Institute began a painstaking new excavation to hunt for new fossils and re-date the stone tools using the latest scientific methods.

Using state-of-the-art scans and statistical shape analysis based on hundreds of measurements the experts were able to recreate a computer-generated image of the original face of one of the fossils, and found it was virtually indistinguishable from that of modern humans living today. The only difference was a slightly more elongated braincase, which would have held a different shaped brain.

Reporting their findings at a press briefing, Prof Hublin said:

"It's not just that we have an older date for the older forms of Homo sapiens but also it allowed us to envision a rather more complex picture for the emergence of our species with different parts of our anatomy evolving at different rates. There is an idea that humans like us appeared rather quickly but our results show this is very unlikely to be true. The story of our species in the last 300,000 years is mostly the evolution of our brain."

Dr Philipp Gunz, of the Max Plank Institute added:

"Our findings suggest that modern human facial morphology was established early on in the history of our species, and that brain shape, and possibly brain function, evolved within the Homo sapiens lineage."

The fossils were found in deposits containing animal bones showing evidence of having been hunted, with the most frequent species being gazelle. By looking at the animals present, archæologists were able to recreate the landscape and climate from the time, to give a picture of the environment for our early ancestors.

"Conditions were wetter than they were today, a little bit more humid, a landscape that is still open but with some clumps of trees, a sort of mixed environment," added Max Planck Institute archæologist Shannon McPherron. "The site itself is in a hill and at the time of occupation would have been a cave, would have provided shelter and we found animal bones and stone tools which they would have used to process and consume those animals. We also find evidence of the fires that they had and the overall picture that one gets is a kind of hunting encampment, a place where people were passing through the landscape and spending the night, taking shelter there in search of subsistence."

Some of the Middle Stone Age stone tools from Jebel Irhoud A composite reconstruction of the earliest known Homo sapiens fossils from Jebel Irhoud

The discoveries were reported in the journal Nature.

The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age

Nature, Wednesday 7th June 2017

Published online by Daniel Richter, Rainer Grün, Renaud Joannes-Boyau, Teresa E. Steele, Fethi Amani, Mathieu Rué, Paul Fernandes, Jean-Paul Raynal, Denis Geraads, Abdelouahed Ben-Ncer, Jean-Jacques Hublin & Shannon P. McPherron

The timing and location of the emergence of our species and of associated behavioural changes are crucial for our understanding of human evolution.

The earliest fossil attributed to a modern form of Homo sapiens comes from eastern Africa and is approximately 195 thousand years old, therefore the emergence of modern human biology is commonly placed at around 200 thousand years ago.

The earliest Middle Stone Age assemblages come from eastern and southern Africa but date much earlier. Here we report the ages, determined by thermoluminescence [4] dating, of fire-heated flint artefacts obtained from new excavations at the Middle Stone Age site of Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, which are directly associated with newly discovered remains of Homo sapiens.

A weighted average age places these Middle Stone Age artefacts and fossils at 315 ±34 thousand years ago. Support is obtained through the recalculated uranium series with electron spin resonance date of 286 ±32 thousand years ago for a tooth from the Irhoud 3 hominin mandible. These ages are also consistent with the faunal and microfaunal assemblages and almost double the previous age estimates for the lower part of the deposits.

The north African site of Jebel Irhoud contains one of the earliest directly dated Middle Stone Age assemblages, and its associated human remains are the oldest reported for Homo sapiens. The emergence of our species and of the Middle Stone Age appear to be close in time, and these data suggest a larger scale, potentially pan-African, origin for both.

[4] Thermoluminescence: frequently asked questions

How does thermoluminescence dating work ?

The thermoluminescence (TL) technique is the only physical means of determining the absolute age of pottery presently available. It is an absolute dating method, and does not depend on comparison with similar objects (as does obsidian hydration dating, for example). In archæology TL is mainly used for pottery analysis whilst in anthropology the main use of TL is the dating of flint stone as early tool material for mankind.

TL originates from the temperature-induced release of energy, stored in the lattice structure of the crystal following long-term internal and external exposure to nuclear radiation from natural sources. TL accumulates in the material with time depending on the radiation (and light) exposure. The TL is released by heating. The dating clock starts with the initial firing of the material, when originally accumulated TL is being driven out.

Most mineral materials, including the constituents of pottery, have the property of TL, where part of the energy from radioactive decay in and around the mineral is stored (in the form of trapped electrons) and later released as light upon strong heating (as the electrons are released and combine with lattice ions). By comparing this light output with that produced by known doses of radiation, the amount of radiation absorbed by the material may be found.

When pottery is fired, it loses all its previously acquired TL, and on cooling the TL begins again to build up. Thus, when one measures dose in pottery, it is the dose accumulated since it was fired, unless there was a subsequent reheating. If the radioactivity of the pottery itself, and its surroundings, is measured, the dose rate, or annual increment of dose, may be computed. The age of the pottery, in principle, may then be determined by the relation:

age = palæodose / annual dose

Although conceptually straightforward, TL has proven to be far from simple in practice. In all, close to two dozen physical quantities must be accurately measured to establish the relationship between doses of different kinds of radiation and light output, and to compute dose rate.

The phenomenon of TL was first described by the English chemist Robert Boyle in 1663. It was employed in the 1950s as a method for radiation dose measurement, and was soon proposed for archæological dating. By the mid-1960s, its validity as an absolute dating technique was established by workers at Oxford and Birmingham in England, Risø in Denmark, and at the University of Pennsylvania in the USA. The Research Laboratory for Archæology at Oxford, in particular, has played a major role in TL research.

While not so accurate as radiocarbon dating, which cannot date pottery (except from soot deposits on cooking pots), TL has found considerable usefulness in the authenticity of ceramic art objects where high precision is not necessary.

Thermoluminescence dating of burnt flint artifacts

Our ancestors have been making flint tools for over a million years. The tools or the flakes left by the flint-knappers have become important markers of prehistoric habitats. The imperishable and ubiquitous nature of flint (chert, hornstone, quartzite, etc - the term 'flint' is used here as a general descriptor of material composed of SiO² with a low crystallinity index)) explains why generations of prehistorians have used it to build a stone age chronology. To be dateable by TL flint must be heated to at least 450°C. While human use of fire may be as old as half a million years, the first true hearths appear late during the Lower Palæolithic period. By the dawn of the Middle Palæolithic fire must have become fully domesticated, judging by the accumulations of charred debris that henceforth litter human habitats.

Establishing chronologies is crucial for Palæolithic research. The lack of chronometric ages for a given site often makes it difficult to place it within the time frame provided by chronostratigraphy and palæoclimatology. TL dating of burnt flint is frequently used to determine the age of Palæolithic sites. It is a dosimetric dating method, which employs the accumulation of radiation damage in crystal lattices through time. Flint artifacts can be dated by TL methods if they have been heated in a prehistoric fire to about 400°C. The TL-age estimate refers to the last heating and therefore provides a direct date for a prehistoric event. Naturally occurring fires are unlikely to be responsible for the heating of material in the vast majority of Palæolithic sites and, in any event, the penetration depth of fire in sediment is very low and burning roots do not produce high temperatures. It is thus unlikely that artifacts were heated by natural fires to an extend required for successful TL-dating application in most cases.

Sample sizes for standard procedures require pieces of at least 10-15 g. A new TL-dating technique has been developed which uses only a few mg of material, thus reducing the minimum sample size to a few grams only, and allows the chronometric dating of sites which do not provide sample material for standard dating approaches: see "Burnt flint artifacts: a new thermoluminescence dating technique", Hugo Obermaier Society, 49th Annual Meeting in Trento (10th - 14th April, 2007)

What is the accuracy of thermoluminescence dating ?

Studies at Oxford back in the 1970s on Romano-British pottery indicated that when all quantities entering the age equation are measured, the TL date of a single potsherd will typically fall within 15% of the known date. When dates of a number of sherds associated together are averaged, the error is reduced typically to 7-10%. This is for well-behaved samples only. The succeeding 30 years, and increased understanding of the dosimetry, have not brought much improvement.

Generally speaking, when a sample is drilled and there is no information available about the burial environment, one may expect up to 40% uncertainty. This is adequate for the purposes of authentication where the question is whether the piece was fired in antiquity or recently; it will not differentiate, say, between a classic Greek terra cotta and a Roman copy. In some categories of objects, from China, for example, the actual age is quite precisely known for short-lived styles, and it is possible to work "backwards" to get information about the environment in many parts of the world, and some other parameters not usually measurable for art objects. Using this information often reduces the uncertainty to 15-25%.

What materials can be dated by thermoluminescence ?

Nearly any mineral material which has been heated above 500°C at a time one wishes to know is a candidate for TL dating. This includes all forms of pottery. Porcelains, being nearly vitrified, are a special case requiring a fairly large solid core sample, and TL dating of intact objects is not recommended because of the damage caused by sampling. Most porcelain dating is done for insurance purposes on broken objects. Much stoneware is not so hard as porcelain and may be sampled by drilling. The clay cores from lost wax metal castings may readily be tested. Heated stone material, such as hearths, pot boilers, and burnt flints, has been dated as well.

Warning about fakes using ancient materials

Recently there has been a spate of forgeries devised expressly to attempt circumventing TL dating. These use pottery of the appropriate period to construct objects. Some of these are quite easy to detect; some quite difficult. For example figures, normally modeled, may be carved out of brick or assembled out of fragments. These will give an 'authentic' date for a bogus object. It must be realized that TL dating is but one of the criteria for judging authenticity. The expertise of the conservator may be of equal or greater importance in many cases. Some problem areas include Northern Nigerian ceramics, especially Nok, which are becoming quite scarce. Ife ceramics are virtually all fake (or stolen, if genuine), but some heads are made from old pot fragments (often too old). New Nigerian (and Asian) bronzes may have introduced old cores, so it is imperative that the interface between metal and core be examined very carefully before the assumption can be made that the age of the bronze is the age of the core. Chinese unglazed ceramics constructed from fragments (or carved from brick) are a particular concern.

How is a sample taken ?

When the TL test is for routine authentication, a sample of about 100mg, roughly a third the volume of a pencil-end eraser, is drilled out of an inconspicuous part of the object with a carbide dental burr. If the object is extremely small, the amount of sample may be reduced, but the error margin may increase. It is sometimes preferable to obtain a fragment a half-inch in diameter and a quarter-inch thick, as the precision attainable is greater. This is advisable whenever the age, if genuine, is less than twice the age of the earliest forgeries.

Sampling does not lessen the value of a piece; indeed, confirmation of authenticity by TL generally enhances an object's value and saleability considerably. The site of the samples may easily be restored.

New fossil discovery rewrites history of first human beings

By Joel Hruska, Wednesday 7th June 2017, Extremetech

Previously, the earliest fossil remains of anatomically modern humans (AMH) were found in Ethiopia and dated to circa 200,000 years ago. Many other AMH fossils have been found in the same areas of Africa, and the scientific consensus has been that these finds represented the first appearance of modern humans. This single origin hypothesis isn't the only theory for how humanity first emerged and then spread across the continent and planet, but it's been the most common argument for a number of years. These new finds, located in Morocco, challenge the existing narrative. It was believed that humanity spread across Africa for over a hundred thousand years before traveling to new continents roughly 70,000 years ago.

This new work is from a site named Jebel Irhoud, where excavations have been ongoing for decades. Part of what sets them apart is that the research team isn't working from just one skull or bone fragments from a single individual, but a group of five separate people. Dr. Hublin and his colleagues used a technique known as thermoluminescence, a technique that measures the accumulated radiation dose of objects that have previously been heated or exposed to sunlight to measure how old they are. The degree of luminescence is proportional to the radiation dose absorbed by the material in question.

In this case, the dating method established that flint blades buried at the site had been burned, probably through exposure to cooking fires, roughly 300,000 years ago. The skulls the expedition found were in the same rock layer as the flint blades, which strongly implies they date to roughly the same time period.

… The humans who lived at Jebel Irhoud could start fires and craft spears. The flint that they used for their weapon tips wasn't local to the area, but came from a site some 20 miles south of Jebel Irhoud. This suggests that early humans knew how to find resources and utilize them even when said resources were scattered rather than grouped in a single location. That's significant in and of itself, particularly for remains as unusual as these.

So how do these finds, assuming they prove to be accurately dated and to belong to our own species, change our understanding of human evolution? They suggest, at minimum, that Homo sapiens sapiens was around much earlier than we previously thought it was. Whether our species evolved in a single specific location or more generally across the continent is still unclear. And not every scientist agrees with Gunz and Hublin that the Jebel Irhoud bones are clear evidence for AMHs more than 100,000 years before they were previously thought to have emerged.

"Homo sapiens 100,000 years older than thought"

Evolution of modern humans pushed back to 300,000 years ago, based on fossils from Morocco

By Clive Cookson, Science Editor, Financial Times, Wednesday 7th June 2017

The origins of our species Homo sapiens lie at least 100,000 years earlier than believed. Palæontologists have found 300,000-year-old Homo sapiens fossils in Morocco, a discovery that not only pushes the evolution of modern humans further back but also focuses research into human origins on a new part of Africa.

Jean-Jacques Hublin, the project leader, said:

"We used to think there was a cradle of mankind 200,000 years ago in east Africa but our new data reveal that Homo sapiens spread across the entire African continent around 300,000 years ago."

The research is published in Nature.

The fossils come from Jebel Irhoud, west of Marrakesh, which was originally investigated in the 1960s and has been re-examined with new dating technology that shows the site is far older than the original archæologists believed. The human bones excavated represent three young adults, an adolescent and a small child. They include a partial skull and lower jaw but no pelvis or lower limbs. Computerised reconstruction of the skulls shows that the inhabitants of Jebel Irhoud would have looked remarkably similar to humans today.

"Their face is the face of people you could meet in the street now," said Professor Hublin, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. "Wearing a hat they would be indistinguishable to us."

He mentioned a hat because, in contrast to a modern face and jaws, the Jebel Irhoud skulls look more archaic from the back, with a lower and more elongated brain case. "Our findings suggest that modern human facial morphology was established early on in the history of our species, and that brain shape and possibly brain function evolved within the Homo sapiens lineage," said Philipp Gunz at the institute.

Jebel Irhoud 300,000 years ago was open grassland with plentiful game. The archæological site contains bones of animals, particularly gazelles, which show signs of having been hunted. There is evidence too of fires being used for cooking and keeping warm.

Stone tools excavated at the site are typical of what palæontologists call the Middle Stone Age. The tools were made mainly of high-quality flint that does not occur locally but would have been brought in from 20 miles away. Their pointed form suggests they were attached to a handle, perhaps to use as spears for hunting.

"The stone artefacts from Jebel Irhoud look very similar to ones from deposits of similar age in east Africa and in southern Africa," said Shannon McPherron, another member of the team. "It is likely that the technological innovations of the Middle Stone Age in Africa are linked to the emergence of Homo sapiens."

Previously, the oldest reliably dated Homo sapiens fossils were 195,000-year-old bones from Omo Kibish in Ethiopia. But researchers at the institute said the Jebel Irhoud discoveries corroborate the controversial interpretation of a 260,000-year-old partial cranium from Florisbad, South Africa, as being an early Homo sapiens.

Prof Hublin said if Homo sapiens was widely distributed across Africa 300,000 years ago, more research was needed to estimate how long ago the species emerged from earlier hominids such as Homo heidelbergensis.

"There is a maximum age beyond which we cannot go: the split between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals around 650,000 years ago," he added.

Chris Stringer, human origins expert at London's Natural History Museum, who was not involved in the Jebel Irhoud work, said

"It shifts Morocco from a supposed backwater in the evolution of our species to a prominent position."

The world 300,000 years ago would have been populated with several human species, including a diversity of early Homo sapiens forms across Africa, the recently discovered Homo naledi in South Africa, Homo heidelbergensis survivors in central Africa, and Neanderthals and Denisovans in Eurasia, as well as the mysterious human hobbits in Flores, Indonesia.

Real location of 'Garden of Eden' cast into doubt by oldest Homo sapiens fossils ever found

Modern humans evolved about 100,000 years earlier than previously thought, researchers say.

By Ian Johnston, Science Correspondent, The Independent, Thursday 8th June 2017

Modern humans evolved about 100,000 years earlier than previously thought and may not have first emerged in a 'Garden of Eden' in east Africa, scientists have said after dating fossils found in the mountains of Morocco. Until now, it was believed Homo sapiens developed about 200,000 years ago in what is now Ethiopia. But the dating of finds at Jebel Irhood, about 60 miles west of Marrakesh, to about 300,000 years ago suggests our species evolved in a more complex way.

In addition to being the oldest known remains of modern humans, the fossils, which include skulls, corroborate a fragment found in South Africa that had been tentatively dated to 260,000 years ago. This suggests that Homo sapiens evolved from a variety of different types of Hominins which once existed across Africa.

The finds at Jebel Irhood, a well-known site first exposed by mining operations in the 1960s, also indicate that the Stone Age people who lived there were prolific hunters, living on a diet of gazelles, zebras, buffalos and wildebeests. Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin, a palæoanthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, said:

"In the last 20 years, the consensus has been that very likely our species emerged somewhere around 200,000 years ago and probably the first forms of what we call early modern humans were represented in East Africa. There is this notion that somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa there is this sort of ‘Garden of Eden' where our species first developed, then spread inside Africa and outside of Africa. Our results challenge this picture."

The Moroccan fossils, coupled with those in East Africa and South Africa, suggest that Homo sapiens "spread across the entire African continent around 300,000 years ago", he said.

"Long before the out-of-Africa dispersal of Homo sapiens, there was dispersal within Africa", he added.

The researchers said they were trying to work out why the world came to be dominated by one "extremely successfully" type of human, when once there had been a number of different types, such as Neanderthals, Denisovans and the recently discovered "hobbits", living alongside each other in Africa, Europe and Asia.

"What made our species so special, that this species expanded out of Africa at some point and replaced other groups of Hominins", Professor Hublin said.

The fossils found at Jebel Irhood show the people had a modern-looking face and teeth. They also had a large braincase, but its shape had similarities with earlier types of humans. However, writing in the journal Nature, the researchers said the fossils displayed the "early stages of the Homo sapiens clade in which key features of modern morphology were established".

The site was discovered during mining operations in the 1960s and initially the fossils were not thought to be anywhere near as old. But modern techniques dated fire-heated flint artefacts found alongside them to about 315,000 years ago and a tooth from one individual to about 286,000 years ago, both estimates had a margin of error of more than 30,000 years.

Professor Rainer Grün, who helped date the fossils, described how quickly our understanding of human evolution had changed over the last few decades.

"If we look at the history of human evolution, until the mid-80s it was thought model humans evolved in Africa and shortly after migrated to Europe at around 40,000 years. In the late 80s there were the first results of anatomically modern humans in Israel at about 100,000 years," he said. "In the 90s there were a few sites found in Ethiopia dated to 200,000 years and now with these results the origins of modern humans are further pushed back to 300,000 years." But the Jebel Irhoud finds meant "we now have to rethink a number of principles within human evolution", he added.

One reason why understanding early human evolution has been so difficult is that Homo sapiens do not appear to have buried their dead around this time. Professor GrÜn, director of the leading Australian Research Centre for Human Evolution, said:

"The finds in Jebel Irhoud are one of the few places we've found modern skulls. That's why our understanding of human evolution is very patchy because we find so few human remains. In contrast, Neanderthals buried their dead but they ate them as well, leading to bone accumulations in caves."

Among the remains were animal bones with tell-tale cuts made by human butchery techniques. Some bones were broken open so the people could eat the nutritious marrow. Most of the bones were from gazelles but the remains of hartebeests, wildebeests, zebras, buffalos, porcupines, hares, tortoises, freshwater molluscs, snakes and ostrich egg shells were also identified. Small game made up only a small percentage of the bones.

"It really seemed like people were fond of hunting," said Professor Teresa Steele, of University of California, Davis, who analysed animal fossils at Jebel Irhoud. Commenting on the research, Professor Robert Foley, an expert in human evolution at Cambridge University, told The Independent that the researchers had made "an important contribution to understanding modern human origins".

"While we have abundant evidence for the existence of modern humans in and around Africa around 100,000 years ago, the early stages are very poorly known - only two fossil sites, both from Eastern Africa," he wrote in an email. "While we have known about Jebel Irhoud for a long time, the new material is important and the new date extremely interesting. The morphology confirms what we see also in Herto and Omo Kibbish [sites in East Africa], namely that the earliest modern humans show some key derived features, but also retain more archaic ones," he said. "Combine this observation with the existence in other parts of Africa from 350,000 to 150,000 years ago of more archaic populations, then we have to think of Africa at this time as a mosaic of Hominin populations, a network of gene flow and isolation, from which, in the end, tens of thousands of years later, one form becomes predominant. Unravelling how that happened remains a big challenge. While this does not necessarily indicate a particular region of origin, it shows that similar populations were widely distributed across Africa."

An 85,000-year-old finger fossil may challenge theories about how early humans migrated from Africa

By Meagan Flynn, The Washington Post, Tuesday 10th April 2018

The 85,000-year-old finger fragment was about as big as a piece of Lego, but the archaeologists who found it buried in the Saudi Arabian desert say it's among a slew of recent discoveries that may challenge our understanding of how early humans first migrated out of Africa.

Archæologists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany announced the discovery of the fossilized finger on Monday. They described it as the oldest directly dated Homo sapiens fossil found outside of Africa or the southwest Asian region called the Levant, or modern-day Israel and Syria. The finding, published April 9 in the Nature, Ecology and Evolution journal, "joins a small but growing corpus of evidence" suggesting humans may have migrated from Africa much earlier and farther than previously thought, the archæologists said.

Summary: Understanding the timing and character of the expansion of Homo sapiens out of Africa is critical for inferring the colonization and admixture processes that underpin global population history. It has been argued that dispersal out of Africa had an early phase, particularly ~130-90 thousand years ago (ka), that reached only the East Mediterranean Levant, and a later phase, ~60-50ka, that extended across the diverse environments of Eurasia to Sahul. However, recent findings from East Asia and Sahul challenge this model. Here we show that Homo sapiens was in the Arabian Peninsula before 85ka. We describe the Al Wusta-1 (AW-1) intermediate phalanx from the site of Al Wusta in the Nefud desert, Saudi Arabia. AW-1 is the oldest directly dated fossil of our species outside Africa and the Levant. The palaeoenvironmental context of Al Wusta demonstrates that Homo sapiens using Middle Palæolithic stone tools dispersed into Arabia during a phase of increased precipitation driven by orbital forcing, in association with a primarily African fauna. A Bayesian model incorporating independent chronometric age estimates indicates a chronology for Al Wusta of ~95-86ka, which we correlate with a humid episode in the later part of Marine Isotope Stage 5 known from various regional records. Al Wusta shows that early dispersals were more spatially and temporally extensive than previously thought. Early Homo sapiens dispersals out of Africa were not limited to winter rainfall-fed Levantine Mediterranean woodlands immediately adjacent to Africa, but extended deep into the semi-arid grasslands of Arabia, facilitated by periods of enhanced monsoonal rainfall.
Discussion: AW-1 is the oldest directly dated Homo sapiens fossil outside Africa and the Levant. It joins a small but growing corpus of evidence that the early dispersal of Homo sapiens into Eurasia was much more widespread than previously thought. The site of Al Wusta is located in the Nefud desert more than 650 km southeast of Skhul and Qafzeh. This site establishes that Homo sapiens were in Arabia in late MIS5, rather than being restricted to Africa and the Levant as suggested by traditional models. With Skhul dating to ~130-100 ka, Qafzeh to ~100-90 ka and Al Wusta to ~95-85 ka, it is currently unclear whether the southwest Asian record reflects multiple early dispersals out of Africa or a long occupation during MIS5. The association of the Al Wusta site with a late MIS5 humid phase suggests that significant aspects of this dispersal process were facilitated by enhanced monsoonal rainfall. While changes in behaviour and demography are crucial to understanding the dispersal process, climatic windows of opportunity were also key in allowing Homo sapiens to cross the Saharo-Arabian arid belt, which often constituted a formidable barrier.
Conclusion: Al Wusta shows that the early, MIS5, dispersals of Homo sapiens out of Africa were not limited to the Levantine woodlands sustained by winter rainfall, but extended deep into the Arabian interior where enhanced summer rainfall created semi-arid grasslands containing abundant fauna and perennial lakes. After long being isolated in Africa, our species expanded into the diverse ecologies of Eurasia in the Late Pleistocene. Within a few thousand years of spreading into Eurasia, our species was occupying rainforest environments and making long sea crossings to remote islands. Adapting to the semi-arid conditions of the Saharo-Arabian arid belt represented a crucial step on this pathway to global success and the Al Wusta Homo sapiens fossil demonstrates this early ability to occupy diverse ecologies that led to us becoming a cosmopolitan species.

Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute said in a statement:

"The Arabian Peninsula has long been considered to be far from the main stage of human evolution. This discovery firmly puts Arabia on the map as a key region for understanding our origins and expansion to the rest of the world."

The 'textbook theory' about migration from Africa is that Homo sapiens didn't move on until about 60,000 years ago, mostly in a single wave of migrants along the African coast, Huw Groucutt, the article's lead author from the University of Oxford's School of Archaelogy, told The Washington Post. If they did leave Africa, he said, scientists theorized they only made it to the Levant, often called the doorstep of Africa, where it meets the Middle East. But a series of findings over the past decade, including this one, have begun to challenge that theory. In recent years:

Groucutt said the discovery of the fossilized finger builds on these discoveries, and also argued that his team's direct dating methods made this discovery the most reliable.

"There's a growing picture that this old model of single-rate expansion [out of Africa] is inaccurate. The textbook model said people couldn't migrate out of Africa until they had a major breakthrough in technology, such as inventing bows and arrows. What we have found is that doesn't seem to be true."

The finger bone was dug up in Saudi Arabia's Nefud Desert at a site called Al Wusta in 2016. Tens of thousands of years ago, this arid region used to be home to lush grasslands and freshwater lakes, possibly created following enhanced monsoonal rainfall that made the otherwise "formidable barrier" more habitable for humans and animals, according to the article.

Before finding the human bone, the archaeologists also spent years digging up hundreds of stone tools in the area as well as bones from hippopotamuses, wild cattle and African antelope - all animals that no longer exist in today's desert climate in that region.

Ordinarily, finding a preserved, ancient human bone in the middle of a desert would be akin to finding Waldo in the middle of Manhattan from 30,000 feet up, in the fog. But Groucutt said that the bone was likely preserved thanks to the ancient lake. The digit was buried in its sediment.

"We just got lucky," he said. "For whatever reason, the preservation conditions were just right."

According to the article, the bone was dated using uranium series dating and found to be at least 85,000 years old. The sediments where it was found were also tested and found to be about 85,000 to 90,000 years old. The bone was also closely compared to bones from primates and Neanderthals to rule out the possibility it did not belong to a human.

Migrating through Arabia "doesn't really fit with the coastal migration idea", Groucutt said. "It seems like people followed lakes and rivers, and the stone tools we found were very traditional, similar to what our species made at least 100,000 years before. So there's no evidence this migration was due to any kind of breakthrough. Instead, it emphasizes the role of climate change."

Other archæologists not involved in the research have backed up Groucutt's team's methodology, while at least one cautioned to the Smithsonian that it may be too soon to say with certainty that the finger bone belongs to Homo sapiens given that its shape possibly overlaps with other species. Many expressed confidence that the bone fit in with other evidence suggesting the long-held theory of migration from Africa - often referred to the 'Out of Africa' theory - is more complicated than previously believed.

"Homo sapiens fossils with reliable dating and context around this period, outside Africa, are very scarce," María Martinón-Torres, director of the National Research Center on Human Evolution in Spain, told the New York Times. "This is the type of solid evidence we need to challenge some models that were close to becoming a dogma rather than a scientific hypothesis, like the recent 'Out of Africa' model."

Groucutt said that his team intends to continue digging in Saudi Arabia, where vast areas remain unexplored. Archæologists whose findings may challenge the 'Out of Africa' model, he said, are still in the "very early days" of their discoveries, and too many questions remain unanswered before a new model can convincingly replace the existing one. "In a broad outline," he said, "the picture is changing, but there's still a lot of pages to fill in the storybook."

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